Meenakshi Shedde: Dharavi's Black Knight
Only, it flips the stereotypes, as is common in South Indian readings of the epic, with Rajinikanth playing Raavan, the good guy, here Kaala (Dark/Black)
PA Ranjith's Kaala, starring Rajinikanth, is a dramatic story but is essentially a straightforward reading of the Ramayana — a good guy versus bad guy story. Only, it flips the stereotypes, as is common in South Indian readings of the epic, with Rajinikanth playing Raavan, the good guy, here Kaala (Dark/Black). Nana Patekar plays the villain, always dressed in pristine white. All wrapped in deadly action set pieces and whistle-worthy dialoguebaazi. I went for the first-day-first-show at 6 am at Aurora Cinema, Matunga, caught the tail end, then saw the full 9 am screening.
The issue here is land grab in Mumbai's Dharavi slum, with Rajinikanth, the local, Tamil don, promising to help the people get housing. But Haridev Abhyankar (Nana Patekar), the Maharashtrian, nationalist, saffron goon leading the builder-politician nexus, is eyeing the property. To you, land is power. To us, it means life, Kaala thunders. In addressing slum shortages of housing, water and public toilets, the film also serves as a political manifesto, projecting Rajinikanth as leader of the poor, in his first film after joining politics. (It is produced by Rajinikanth's son-in-law Dhanush's Wunderbar Films). Also, the casting of Bollywood stars Nana Patekar, Huma Qureshi, Anjali Patil and Pankaj Tripathi, and the setting of the film in Dharavi, suggests they are seeking a wider audience beyond Tamil Nadu.
Mani Ratnam's Raavanan had more complexity in the protagonist/antagonist, and Vikram's tribal activist was seriously sexy too. Here, Raavan is primarily a Rajinikanth platform. But, the screenplay fleshes out roles for smaller characters too. These include Rajinikanth's wife Selvi (a feisty Easwari Rao), son Lenin (Manikandan, superb), Zarina (Huma Qureshi) as Rajinikanth's first love and now Dharavi redevelopment expert, activist Anjali Patil (who, thrillingly, slaps a goon), and director-actor Samuthirakani, playing Kaala's old friend Valliappan.
Rajinikanth commands attention, but he lurches from being a Dharavi slum-dweller to a superman who fends off a dozen goons with a single black umbrella, in one of its best set-action pieces, shot on Marine Drive. Nana Patekar is in fine form too but does a familiar routine. The film has a strong socialist, secular, pro-poor message, although Rajinikanth's remarks in real life suggest a different politics. The climax lets us down: our superhero prevents Patekar from grabbing land, yet is unable to solve Dharavi's housing crisis. G Murali Vardhan's cinematography is superb, as is the music by Santhosh Narayanan, including Dharavi rappers Dope Daddy and Stony Psyko. But at 2 hours, 42 mins, it is overly long and repetitive.
Pa Ranjith is a Dalit filmmaker who made Attakathi, Madras, and Kabali, and it is valuable to see his politics in our cinema, otherwise usually reflecting an upper caste hegemony. Kaala's sign posts include Dr. Ambedkar's pictures, Buddha statues, and the use of blue, associated with the former. But, also, Lenin mostly wears red, and the crooked builder is Manu Realty. We need many more Ranjiths.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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